‘Sister Carrie’ follows a young woman as she travels from her small town life at the age of 18 to the big city. At first she lives with her sister and her sister’s husband. She struggles to find work, and succumbs, quite easily it has to be said, to the blandishments and an attractive and smooth talking young man, who sets her up in a small flat of her own. To provide this scandalous situation with a veneer of respectability they pretend to the neighbours that she is his wife. Bored with this arrangement she begins a secretive romantic liaison with another man. Dreisser loses interest at this point – I have read that he abandoned the novel several times before finishing it – and so injects some liveliness by having the second boyfriend, Hurstwood, rob his employers of $10,000, and flee across the border into Canada, taking Carrie with him. He almost immediately regrets this, pays back most of the money, and moves to New York in hope of finding an income. Carrie plays housewife, but when the money dries up she takes a job on the stage, eventually finding fame and fortune. Her boyfriend finds only poverty and destitution, and eventually kills himself in despair.
How this novel possibly found a place in the Guardian’s top 100 novels written in the English language I will never know. It has so many deficiencies, from the misleading title (the ambiguity between Carrie being a sister, and having nun-like tendencies, offers possibilities which are never explored); the tedium of the length at which poverty in Chicago and New York is unrelentingly described; and the almost complete lack of characterisation. After 500 pages we still know very little about Carrie’s thoughts and feelings, beyond a vague interest in shoes and clothes. She is a profoundly superficial and uninteresting person, and when her stage career takes off we share no delight on her behalf. This list just scratches the surface of the novel’s weaknesses, but there’s little to be gained from any further demolition of what he till now been a justly forgotten novel.
‘Sister Carrie’ caused a minor scandal on publication, because while she has affairs with men who are not her husband, she does not suffer any consequences from this, remaining unpunished by the fates. But her affairs are loveless, joyless things. Dreisser is unable to look too closely at the dynamics of these relationships – sex is barely hinted at, and the reader is simply left to infer that it probably happens at some point. She drifts into the relationships unenthusiastically, and they end with an equal lack of passion or drama.
Are there any redeeming features here? The portrait of urban America is convincing – you can certainly believe that Dreisser has walked the cold, dirty streets of Chicago and New York, looking hopelessly for work, queuing for handouts, and sleeping in filthy rented rooms for a few cents a night. There’s no hope offered for his characters – this is simply a portrait, not an analysis. There is no way out other than suicide. An interesting section clearly dropped into the novel follows a bus-drivers strike, shown from the perspective of a strike breaker. The strikers are portrayed sympathetically, but so are the scabs, and only the police get a hard time. This plot line is quietly dropped in favour of yet more street walking and hunger.